HBCU Law Schools Face Severe Underfunding: 'Do We Have a Belt' Left to Tighten


HBCU Law Schools Face Severe Underfunding: 'Do We Have a Belt' Left to Tighten?

June 14, 2022 at 04:25 PM

“We carry the weight of diversifying the profession," Florida A&M University College of Law dean Deidre Keller said.


There are six Historically Black Colleges and Universities law schools in the U.S., established because Black students were denied access to law school, and each is struggling due to underfunding.

The six HBCU law schools and deans are as follows: Florida A&M University College of Law with dean Deidre Keller; Howard University School of Law with dean Danielle Holley-Walker; North Carolina Central University School of Law, where dean Browne C. Lewis recently died; Southern University Law Center with John Pierre as chancellor; Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law with dean Joan R.M. Bullock; and the University at the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law with dean Renee McDonald Hutchins.

Howard is the oldest and only private school of the six.

“We are sort of like missionaries,” Pierre told Law.com.

“It’s in our DNA,” he said. “We hope we have an impact on people’s lives.”

“We’re expected to have roles as change agents,” Pierre said. “We take the challenge on willingly.”

“We carry the hopes and dreams of very many people,” he added, explaining that Black citizens expect a lot from Black lawyers.

The six HBCU law schools are responsible for approximately 25% of the law degrees earned by Black students, while the six accredited law schools make up just 3% of the nation’s law schools, Pierre wrote in an article published in The National Jurist in April.

“This disparity cannot persist if we want to continue diversifying the field of law by building the careers of strong Black attorneys,” Pierre wrote.

For the six HBCU law schools there was a total of 2,829 J.D. students enrolled as of Oct. 5, with 1,660 (59%) of those students identifying as Black/African American and 2,228 (79%) identifying as students of color, according to the schools 509 Reports.

The percentages of Black law students ranged from 48% at Florida A&M and the University at the District of Columbia, up to 76% at Howard. The range for students of color was 70% at Southern University up to 96% at Howard, according to the 509s.

“We’re charged with producing most of the lawyers of color for the entire profession,” Howard’s Holley-Walker told Law.com.

Deidré A. Keller, dean of the Florida A&M University (FAMU) College of Law in Orlando, Florida. Courtesy photoDeidré A. Keller, dean of the Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando, Florida. Courtesy photo

While Keller, dean of FAMU College of Law, told Law.com, “We carry the weight of diversifying the profession.”

“In the last few years, there is a heightened look at diversity in this profession,” Holley-Walker said. “HBCU deans are under a lot of focus and scrutiny because of who we’re training.”

She said there is a huge amount of pressure to succeed that may not exist for every law school.

“At even the most well-resourced institutions, serving as the dean of a law school is a challenging job with numerous stakeholders, vocal and invested constituencies, and near continuous demands on your time and attention,” Hutchins, who serves as dean and Rauh chair of public interest law at the UDC law school, told Law.com.

“For deans at HBCU law schools, however, that job is further complicated by the relatively modest resources our institutions have at hand to accomplish the mission,” Hutchins said. “While our schools are home to some of the brightest and most hardworking faculty and staff in the country, all too often we struggle with infrastructure and capital needs unimaginable to our better-resourced counterparts.

“Additionally, the racial injustice and income inequality that generally plague the nation as a whole are often felt acutely by our student bodies, making holistic student support a mandatory component of each institution’s mission to deliver a high-quality legal education,” Hutchins said.

Dean Danielle Holley-Walker, Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C.Dean Danielle Holley-Walker, Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C.

Holley-Walker, who has been at Howard for nearly eight years and is currently the longest-serving HBCU dean, added that she and her colleagues “are charged with an incredible amount of responsibility, which doesn’t leave much time for our own health.

“We are understaffed and under-resourced,” she said, “which adds additional stressors to what we already have.”

The challenge of HBCUs is the underfunding, Bullock, dean at Texas Southern law school, told Law.com, and because of the underfunding, there is the challenge of not having enough people to do the work.

“HBCUs pride themselves on being able to do a lot with a little,” she said, adding, “We pride ourselves on the fact that we outperform our predictors.”

HBCUs tightened their belts years ago, Bullock said. “Now it’s almost like do we have a belt?” she said.

“It’s like when the elderly have to decide between taking their medicine or eating,” she said, “and that was prior to COVID.”

“We already were struggling,” Bullock said, adding that while the Biden administration has provided significant money to HBCUs, it’s not enough to get them out of the hole.

“Giving money today doesn’t take care of debt,” she said, “or the legacy of being poor,” which makes it challenging to attract talented students or faculty.

While Bullock says everyone is struggling, “our problems are disproportional, like they [other law schools] have a cold—we have the flu.”

HBCUs are so under-resourced that it makes it very difficult to get to the place of success, Keller said.

Student-faculty ratios are higher at HBCUs and student aid is always lower, when socioeconomically HBCU students are more in need but “we give them less aid because we have less resources at our disposal,” she said.

“That’s what makes this job so stressful,” she added. “We are busy trying to stretch resources to meet our students where they are.”

Additionally, the limited resources at the HBCUs make it very difficult to recruit highly qualified students, Keller said.

She said her job is to make sure she is recruiting students who can succeed, that FAMU has the resources in place to support them while they are at the college and then make sure they can pass the bar and have ample opportunities in the profession.

Keller said she has to figure out how she can best use the resources she has while trying to marshal additional resources, which makes the fundraising aspects of the job that much more urgent.

Students choose an HBCU law school because it enriches their experience “to be in a rich diverse community that is going to support you with whatever trials come up,” Keller said.

HBCUs have students who may not have traditional credentials for success but still succeed and become impactful in the communities they serve, Bullock said. “HBCUs are very good in ensuring there is a consistent and robust pipeline of minority graduates to be in those careers.”

“It’s incredibly challenging and incredibly important,” Keller said.

Being a dean of an HBCU law school is “a really important thing to be doing at this moment,” she said.

Keller said she’s willing to take on the extra stress because “our contributions to the profession and to the country are that important at this moment where we need diverse lawyers engaged in the important work of addressing long-standing systemic issues.”

“There is no question, however, that the work we do is essential, and the lives we are changing are well-served by our institutions’ commitment to social and economic justice,” Hutchins said. “That reality makes the job a true privilege of service in the highest order.”


By Christine Charnosky